Morgan Rielly’s self-belief on track, Maple Leafs D corps stabilizing with break one game away


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Morgan Rielly is feeling the effects of scoring his first goal of the season. 

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We mean that in a good way.

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“I got some confidence back after the goal (against Washington on Sunday),” the Maple Leafs defenceman said following practice on Tuesday at the Ford Performance Centre. 

“That game in Boston (a 4-3 loss on Jan. 14 which was a difficult night for several Leafs, Rielly included), we came home, I’ve had a chance to refocus and I feel like I’m playing well. I feel good.

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“It’s on me now to work hard to keep that and build.”

The Leafs have one game remaining before the all-star break/bye week, and it’s a rather large one. The Bruins, who undoubtedly will be a little ornery after losing three games in a row for the first time this season, will give the Leafs a final test on Wednesday before the players head off for some well-deserved rest. 

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A regulation victory would give the Leafs further opportunity to relax in the coming days, but still would leave them nine points behind the Bruins in the Atlantic Division standings. They’ll take what they can get.

Goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who worked with goalie coach Curtis Sanford on Tuesday before practice and then departed, will be in goal for his seventh start in a row and eighth consecutive appearance. 

Back to Rielly and the defence corps, which has its top six intact again with the return on Sunday of TJ Brodie from a rib injury. We don’t count Jake Muzzin, who has been out since October with a cervical spine injury and may or may not play again this season. 

We know the respectable job the defencemen did as Rielly and then Brodie took up space on the sideline with injuries. The group didn’t miss a beat, as Conor Timmins, Jordie Benn, Victor Mete and Mac Hollowell, to varying degrees, stepped into the lineup and performed admirably.

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Now, though, the top six sets up as coach Sheldon Keefe and his staff envisioned, not only in personnel but in the pairings with Rielly-Brodie, Mark Giordano-Justin Holl and Rasmus Sandin-Timothy Liljegren.

Is there a Norris Trophy candidate in the bunch? No, but at the same time, Keefe isn’t peeking between his fingers with worry when any of his defencemen go over the boards. 

The Leafs will have 30 games remaining once they resume play next Friday in Columbus, the first game of a home-and-home set with the Blue Jackets. As long as the defence corps can avoid injuries, growth should continue.

“It’s important because you try to find a rhythm with guys you are comfortable playing with,” Giordano said. “You see the chemistry with me and Holler, between Lilly and Sandy. 

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“Any time you get guys like Mo and Brodes back in the lineup, it evens out the minutes. We get those two veteran guys back and it feels comfortable. 

“Spreading out the minutes is important, but even more important is knowing that we don’t really have to worry about matchups with the pairs we have. It feels like we can all play against anyone.”

Holl, sitting at his nearby stall, agreed. As it stands now, none of the six average less than 18 minutes of ice time.

Rielly is atop the group (and all Leafs) at 22 minutes 38 seconds a game, while Sandin brings up the rear at 18 minutes two seconds.

“I think selfishly everyone likes playing as many minutes as possible, but in terms of the taxation on your body, it’s really good that we can distribute the minutes pretty evenly,” Holl said. “It’s good to have that sort of stability.”

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Said Rielly: “You don’t feel like you’re going to get bogged down with a lot of D-zone draws or a lot of really tough matchups or extra minutes because there’s a pair that might be struggling or something like that. That’s not the case with us. You can go out there with confidence and know that the responsibilities and the minutes are going to be spread around, and that’s a good feeling.”

Keefe takes the long view.

“We’ll see how it all shakes out,” Keefe said. “You have guys like Rielly and Brodie in particular who can, and will, take on a lot of minutes. It’s a balance. Everybody talks about managing the minutes and load management or whatever it might be, but you got to win hockey games. You got to play, you got to compete.

“There’s still a lot of hockey left to be played, so we will keep our focus on deploying our guys the best we can.”

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